Minnesota real estate mogul Ralph Burnet dies at 78

Ralph Burnet — who founded from scratch a powerhouse Minnesota real estate company that's helped transform the way people buy and sell houses — died Tuesday in Minneapolis at age 78.

For sale signs with BURNET stripped across them made his name synonymous with real estate in the area, but he was no less renowned for his boundless enthusiasm for sports and modern art.

"He was truly one of the brightest guys during his tenure running a brokerage company. ... He was also the only guy in the industry to underwrite a corporate golf outing, the CBB Senior Classic," said Steve Murray of RTC Consulting, a national brokerage expert. "From the late 70s to 80s and 90s and 2000s, he was very much a part of everything going on here."

Burnet, born in Pittsburgh but who grew up in the Twin Cities, didn't set out to be a real estate mogul. In his 20s, he co-owned a ski shop at 50th and France. The trajectory of his life — and real estate in the Twin Cities — changed in 1968 when the owner of a real estate office across the street, who also happened to be his former Little League Coach, hired him to sell houses.

Burnet caught the real estate bug in a big way. He wanted to do more than work with buyers and sellers: He wanted to build a business, and he wanted to be No. 1. In 1973, he and Dar Reedy opened their own real estate office, which ballooned from a small group of seven agents to thousands, making it one of most storied companies in the industry and one of the biggest brokerages in the nation.

"He was a huge risk taker," said Patti Napier, a Twin Cities agent for what's now known as Coldwell Banker Realty and the last of those initial seven. "He operated out of the box."

Napier said Burnet's personal and professional mantra revolved around embracing growth, change and fun, whether in the office or on the links.

That philosophy and a willingness to challenge the status quo inspired Burnet to embrace new business models. In the fledgling days of the company, most real estate competitors focused solely on buying and selling houses. Burnet saw an opportunity to add convenience — and boost profits — by offering buyers and sellers easy access to affiliated services including title, mortgage and insurance.

Burnet was especially successful at creating a relocation services division that enabled the company to tap into the lucrative world of corporate relocations, something that wasn't routinely done in the days before the World Web and online listing services.

"He was one of the pioneers of mortgage and title services. He was certainly one of the first to really integrate it within his brokerage and to figure that out," said Murray of the rapidly changing industry at the time.

Barely a decade after starting the company, its stratospheric growth and reputation for innovation caught the attention of Merrill Lynch, which bought the company and lured Burnet to Connecticut to run the business.

The company passed through the hands of Merrill Lynch to Prudential, but in 1990, it was back to Burnet and Reed, who bought the company back. That deal included First Security Title, which became a wholly owned subsidiary of Burnet Realty. But by the 1990s, in a move intended to convey the message the company does more than sell houses, Burnet Realty became Burnet Financial Group, which included a move into the insurance business. Its other companies included Great Lakes Mortgage, Burnet Relocation Management, Distinctive Homes Division, Burnet New Homes Division and the new Burnet Insurance.

At the time, Burnet, who was chairman and chief executive officer, said renaming the company "better reflects what we are as a whole company and where we are headed."

Burnet was known for his eye-catching and sometimes over-the-top marketing campaigns as well as for tackling projects — like a home improvement business — that didn't thrive. He was fiercely competitive, going toe-to-toe and listing-to-listing against a handful of other homegrown brokerages, including Edina Realty.

"He was absolutely willing to fail and learn from it," said Napier, who ran the relocation business and reported directly to Burnet for a time.

In 1998, the company sold again, this time to NRT with another new name: Coldwell Banker Burnet. And in early 2000, as part of a corporate reshuffle, Robin Peterson, who started working for Burnet in 1977, became president of Coldwell Banker Burnet Home Services.

Peterson said Burnet was especially adept at cultivating talent and encouraging people to succeed.

"The most important thing when you met him was that you knew he cared about you and your growth and where you wanted to go in life and business," she said. "The two were intertwined."

Matt Baker agreed. He said Burnet was both a friend and mentor. Baker started selling real estate for the company decades ago but eventually became its president.

"Ralph was intense and emphatic and had a fair amount of irreverence, but he didn't have much pretense. And there was only speed with Ralph. He brought great things to the Twin Cities," he said. "He had a plan and vision to be No. 1, and when you walked out of [his office], you were thinking, 'I want to be part of this.'"

Real estate wasn't his only personal or professional (usually both) passion. Burnet was a Timberwolves minority owner and is credited with bringing pro golf to Minnesota in the 1990s. He hosted several major golf and tennis tournaments, brought world-class professionals to the Twin Cities and was known as an expressive player.

"He wasn't a hack at golf," Napier said. "He was always animated on the course, and you always knew if there was a bad shot."

After his brokerage days, Burnet focused on other real estate challenges, including a multi-year transformation of a neglected building on Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis into the art-centric Chambers Hotel. And in 2007, he led the conversion of the historic Foshay Tower into the W Minneapolis Hotel.

"As busy as he was, he made all the time in the world for us," said his son, Ryan. "He was my baseball coach and my hockey coach. He was involved in every single one of my tennis matches."

Ryan Burnet said despite his business interests and his passion for skiing, sailing and so many other sports, his father seemed to have boundless energy.

"He was able to pivot quickly whether he was able to work on an acquisition of a company, but he showed up for everything," Burnet said. "He had such an impact not only me but on a lot of my close friends. He was like a second father and role model. He was someone whose personality just lit up the room."

Ralph Burnet's wife Peggy, two daughters and eight grandchildren also survive him.